Our elite universities are international leaders. In their admission policies most pride themselves as having worldwide reputations for excellence and aspire to recruit the brightest and best globally.
Nevertheless, at the heart of last year’s battle over tuition fees was an implicit recognition that the UK’s university sector cannot afford to rest on its laurels. The world is moving on apace and greater freedoms are vital to ensuring our best universities can continue to compete with the very top institutions in the international league tables.
Yet the concessions the government made to secure reform may undermine the future of our university sector.
Last week, the Deputy Prime Minister declared that ‘social mobility will improve only if we throw open the doors of universities, especially the most selective, to bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds’. His plans to ‘throw open’ doors include making universities wishing to charge over £6000 a year ‘widen access’. How access is broadened will be up to each institution but they will be monitored by the Office for Fair Access and fined up to £500 000 if they fail to comply. Suggested measures on how to avoid penalties include lowering grade offers and taking background into account when handing out places. In practice, this may mean preferring a less qualified pupil from an inner city comprehensive over a student from an independent school with top grades. It is not clear how this might objectively be regarded as ‘fair’ or ‘evidence-based’.
What the Deputy Prime Minister fails to recognise is that universities’ doors are already open – to the very best students regardless of background. Nobody doubts that raw intellect is about more than simply passing exams, which is why institutions such as Cambridge and Oxford interview every prospective student. But ultimately each candidate should be judged solely on their individual merit, potential and performance, not their parents’ earnings, ethnicity or the name and status of the school they happened to have attended in their late teens. The proposals risk placing discrimination at the heart of admissions policy by laying down prescriptive rules that ultimately make background the determining factor in the allocation of university places. While this reduces the opportunities available to those with the best grades who had the misfortune of attending a successful school, it also robs students from disadvantaged backgrounds of the certainty that their talent alone won them their university place, rather than it being a gift bestowed by a quota system.
The wealthy, along with those less well-off parents who have made enormous financial sacrifices for their children’s education, will as ever not stand idly by while this policy is implemented around them. They will actively seek out other top institutions all too happy to embrace their talent in the increasingly global higher education marketplace. Once such talented students leave our shores, what hope of their returning to the UK?
Furthermore, whilst we in the UK pursue social engineering over educational rigour, a new generation of universities across the globe unashamedly powers towards academic excellence. The twin advantages of internationally respected educational quality and the English language should make this country the destination of choice for future generations of students from China, India and other developing nations. Amongst an increasingly consumeristic group of international students, performance league tables are going to become ever more important. The levelling down in standards of our elite universities will surely make many think twice before spending vast sums to obtain a British degree over that from a homegrown institution.
We would also be unwise to assume that we are not now close to the limit of state intervention which the UK’s top universities will tolerate. From the viewpoint of my own central London constituency, I fear that Imperial College and the London School of Economics, to name but two, may soon consider seriously going private as the sole means of competing effectively with the finest of the US universities which go from strength to strength courtesy of alumni funding, a policy of academic elitism and freedom from the constraints of government intervention.
Conservatives believe in upholding the principles of aspiration, opportunity and merit. We believe in choice, because choice helps raise standards for all. By instinct Conservatives promote excellence above equality. We want to see standards driven up to make the best available to all. This has always been in stark contrast to our political opponents, whose obsession with ‘fairness’ has typically manifested itself in the levelling down of standards and opportunities to the lowest common denominator, entrenching underachievement.
At their core, universities exist to develop minds, spark innovation and ideas and provide a community for intellectual thought to flourish. Their mission should never be to repair years of institutional inadequacy in the compulsory state education system or to salve the consciences of Britain’s political elite.
The government now risks presiding over a policy which runs counter not only to Conservative principles but, more importantly still, has the potential to undermine the essence of UK universities’ historic success. Merit, excellence and performance alone must continue to be the watchwords of selection within our higher educational system.